Is fear of the B-word behind silence on global affairs in this election campaign? Joyce McMillan

Britain's place in fast-changing world has barely been mentioned in this election campaign

The year was 2006; and on a warm August night, I was among a packed audience of 600 or so in the old Drill Hall on Forrest Road in Edinburgh, watching the world premiere of the National Theatre of Scotland’s most successful show to date, Black Watch.

Created through interviews with dozens of Scottish soldiers returning from Iraq - where conflict was still raging, three years after the beginning of the US- and UK-led assault on Saddam Hussein’s regime - the show was both a brilliantly absorbing piece of theatre, and relentless in its account of the horrors those young soldiers faced and witnessed.

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As with all good theatre, though, the reaction of the audience was also a vital part of the event; and the show featured a crucial moment when, at either end of the stage, huge screens appeared showing former Labour Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon making a speech defending the Iraq invasion, and the then Scottish opposition leader, Alex Salmond, expressing his view that it was “unpardonable folly.”

Astonishingly, the whole diverse audience - from festival-goers local and international to ex-servicemen and their families - seemed to burst into applause at Salmond’s words, a roar of approval that echoed across the space. In that response, I thought I could feel the tectonic plates of Scottish politics shifting, towards the long era of SNP dominance we have seen since then; and less than a year later, Alex Salmond was First Minister.

All of which raises some questions about the very low salience of foreign affairs in the current UK general election debate, and the fact that in most of the televised interviews and discussions so far they have barely been mentioned at all - unless you count Rishi Sunak’s inept decision to depart early from last week’s D-day 80th anniversary event in Normandy.

21st century politicians are all, of course, supremely aware of Bill Clinton’s dictum that “it’s the economy, stupid”, that finally determines how people vote. Even if that were always true, though, the fact is that in a profoundly interconnected world, no economy is an island; and that if we want a stable and prosperous future, then the quality of our external relations - whether cultivating our own trading links, or contributing to global security in general - will be vital in supporting that ambition.

Yet the general election debate has been notable, so far, only for an almost obsessive micro-focus on the tax and spending policies of the two major UK parties, and on the question of whether their “sums add up”; a focus that is often devoid of serious discussion of the wider global context. By far the biggest elephant in the room, of course, is Brexit, now largely exposed as the scam and con-trick that many voters and politicians always knew it was; an episode that can hardly be dismissed as history while, according to pollsters, 68 per cent of voters who express a view now believe it was a wrong decision, and more than 60 per cent believe that we should rejoin the EU.

Brexit, though - and the eerie silence of the three main UK parties on the subject - is only one of the major international issues now looming over the UK government. The tougher-than-thou slanging-match between Penny Mordaunt and Angela Rayner in last week’s “seven leaders” debate, for example, over commitment to the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, shed no light on the tough decisions Britain now faces about how best to restore its defences after two decades of cuts, and about what areas of defence spending should be prioritised, in such new times.

And even if we leave aside the vital matter of international co-operation on climate change, there are urgent wider questions to be addressed about how Britain aligns itself in a fast-changing world. To put it bluntly, by siding so strongly with Israel following the horrible Hamas attack of 7 October, and by refusing for months to condemn crimes against humanity committed by Israeli forces in Gaza, the British political establishment may have secured its relationship with the US and Israel, and with some European partners.

It has also, though, adopted a knee-jerk “pro-western” position that is increasingly viewed with contempt by nations across the globe, including huge emerging powers such as India, South Africa and Brazil. The interview in which Keir Starmer, a human rights lawyer, came close to saying that Israel had a right to cut off water and food supplies to the civilian population of Gaza was in that sense a key moment in current British politics; and it would be good to see some serious debate, during this campaign, about how all Britain’s parties would like to see the nations of these islands navigate this increasingly perilous global landscape, dominated by growing tensions between the two economic giants, the US and China.

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Back in 2003-2007, after all, the Blair government’s over-reach in backing George W. Bush’s ill-planned and arguably illegal assault on Iraq eventually became a powerful recruiting sergeant for the SNP. And even today, the SNP can persuasively argue - referring to examples all around us in north-west Europe - that there is a clearer positive path forward, in international relations, for an independent Scotland seeking to rejoin the EU, than for a UK still mired in illusions about its global status, and struggling with the consequences of Brexit.

Mapping out a new plan for a UK comfortable with its position in its world, and capable of moving on at last from its imperial dreaming, should therefore be a high priority for pro-Union politicians interested in fighting off that challenge. So far, though, what we have mainly had from all parties, and from those charged with interrogating them, is silence on this vital context for Britain’s future; combined with a fear of the B-word, Brexit, that stifles the discussion from the outset, and fatally weakens its connection with the global realities we now face.

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